Las Vegas Review-Journal

Documents point to bias, human error in FBI’S Jan. 6 failure

- By Adam Goldman and Alan Feuer

WASHINGTON — Days before the end of the 2020 presidenti­al race, a team of FBI analysts tried to game out the worst potential outcomes of a disputed election.

But of all the scenarios they envisioned, the one they never thought of was the one that came to pass: a violent mob mobilizing in support of former President Donald Trump.

The team’s work, which has never been reported, is just the latest example of how the Federal Bureau of Investigat­ion was unable to predict — or prevent — the chaos that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Apparently blinded by a narrow focus on “lone wolf” offenders and a misguided belief that the threat from the far left was as great as that from the far right, the analysis and other new documents suggest, officials at the bureau did not anticipate or adequately prepare for the attack.

The story of the FBI’S missteps in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 was touched upon, but not fully explored, by the House select committee investigat­ing Jan. 6, and may involve a mix of legal hurdles, institutio­nal biases and simple human error.

The analysis conducted by the FBI, an exercise often known as a “red cell,” was included in the select committee’s investigat­ion examining structural failures at the bureau and the Department of Homeland Security. The committee did not publish a report on those findings, but The New York Times reviewed a draft document containing preliminar­y conclusion­s.

There was no single failure. Agents ignored warning signs flashing in the open on social media and relied on confidenti­al sources who either knew little or failed to sound the alarm. Still, even recently, bureau officials have played down not preventing the worst assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812.

“If everybody knew and all the public knew that they were going to storm Congress, I don’t know why one person didn’t tell us,” Jennifer Moore, the top intelligen­ce official at the FBI’S Washington field office at the time, told congressio­nal investigat­ors. “Why didn’t we have one source come forward and tell me that?”

Other agencies, like the

Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and in particular, the Capitol Police, also had major roles in analyzing intelligen­ce and protecting the Capitol before Jan. 6 — and all failed to secure top officials. But the FBI had a unique part to play given its superior investigat­ive reach and mandate to prevent acts of terror.

Now, the FBI is conducting an internal review of what happened Jan. 6 to assess what it describes as lessons learned and to “make improvemen­ts in communicat­ion and in the collection, analysis and sharing of informatio­n.” The Justice Department’s inspector general is also scrutinizi­ng the bureau’s preparatio­n and response.

Congressio­nal investigat­ors who examined the FBI’S response never received from the bureau many key documents they requested. The bureau provided about 2,000 documents in total; the Secret Service by comparison offered more than a million electronic communicat­ions.

Moreover, the FBI only did two transcribe­d interviews with top bureau officials: one with Moore and another with David Bowdich, the former FBI deputy director. The committee staff also received a dozen briefings, including from Steven Jensen, who ran the bureau’s domestic terrorism operations Jan. 6.

Committee investigat­ors were, however, able to obtain emails that illustrate­d the bureau’s belief that there were no credible threats to Washington before Jan. 6. Those emails were written even as agents tracked domestic terrorism suspects who were planning trips to the city for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and opened dozens of new cases related to unrest surroundin­g the election.

The draft document cites two major problems that essentiall­y blinded the FBI.

For years, the bureau has highlighte­d what are known as lone wolves or individual­s acting on their own, a threat that is extremely hard to detect and thwart. Last year, FBI Director Christophe­r Wray testified before Congress that “the greatest terrorism threat to our homeland is posed by lone actors or small cells of individual­s who typically radicalize to violence online.”

That particular focus obscured its ability to see a “broad-right wing movement come together” and created a cognitive bias that hampered critical thinking, according to the draft document.

The unclassifi­ed “red cell” analysis — dated Oct. 27, 2020 — discussed four potential situations that involved lone offenders, but “none suggested the rise of a mass movement that might support an aggrieved losing candidate,” the draft document said. And none specifical­ly addressed actors such as militia groups or white supremacis­ts, who took a leading role in the Capitol attack.

As early as 2019, Attorney General William Barr and Trump wanted the bureau to focus on leftist groups like the antifa movement, claiming they were the real threat. This occurred even after a spate of mass shootings that year targeted places like synagogues and the FBI made combating racially motivated extremists a top threat.

In 2021, both the Justice Department and the FBI made investigat­ing far-left extremists a top priority along with militias and other anti-government groups. But in more than two decades, there had been only one killing by someone the bureau had classified as an “anarchist violent extremist.”

The committee’s draft document said this decision by the FBI was an exercise in false equivalenc­y, noting that the lethal threats posed by far-right violent extremists in recent years far outpaced the threats from the left. Officials at the FBI and Justice Department have repeatedly said white supremacis­t extremists were the top domestic terrorism threat and the most lethal one.

The FBI said in a statement that it sought to counter all types of threats, saying it would “continue to work to prevent acts of violence and mitigate threats, without fear or favor, regardless of the underlying motivation or socio-political goal.” From 2020-21, it said, the bureau “saw a rise in violence and criminal activity, to include lethal attacks, by anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists — specifical­ly anarchist violent extremists and militia violent extremists.”

It added that “while lone actors pose a serious and persistent threat, the FBI maintains a broad perspectiv­e, constantly gathering informatio­n and evaluating intelligen­ce.”

The FBI has long kept tabs on extremist groups through the use of confidenti­al sources. And in the sensitive months leading up to Jan. 6, the bureau was well positioned to know what was happening inside the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia, two far-right groups whose leaders were later charged with seditious conspiracy in the storming of the Capitol.

Federal agents had managed to recruit a star informant at the highest levels of the Oath Keepers: Greg Mcwhirter, the organizati­on’s No. 2 man at the time and a confidant of its leader, Stewart Rhodes. The FBI had also developed relationsh­ips with at least eight members of the Proud Boys.

And yet before Jan. 6, none of these informants sounded an alarm about a pending attack, according to lawyers associated with both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Even after the Capitol was stormed, the lawyers have said, the informants repeatedly told their handlers in the FBI that they knew nothing about plans to initiate an assault against lawmakers Jan. 6.

The experience of Matthew Walter, who once ran a Proud Boys chapter in Tennessee, is instructiv­e.

In a recent interview, Walter said the FBI approached him in the summer of 2020 seeking answers about the violent unrest that had erupted during racial justice protests nationwide. Playing on his patriotism, he said, the agents asked about the Proud Boys’ adversarie­s in antifa.

Walter agreed to help on one condition: that the agents not question him about the Proud Boys.

“They told me, ‘You guys have never caused any problems in this state, so we don’t have any reason to be looking into you,’ ” Walter said.

Still, Walter was skeptical enough about the agents’ motives that he sought advice from the leader of the Proud Boys at the time, Enrique Tarrio, who is now on trial in Washington in connection with the Capitol attack. He said that Tarrio, a former FBI informant himself, told him to cooperate. As many as 20 members of the group, Walter claimed, had also worked with the bureau, by Tarrio’s account.

Eventually, when it became clear that a large group of Proud Boys intended to go to Washington on Jan. 6 to support Trump, the agents asked Walter if he was joining and how many others were also thinking of attending.

“‘If you go, just don’t be an idiot,’ is what my guy told me,” Walter said.

In the end, Walter failed to meet up with his fellow Proud Boys and spent much of the afternoon following Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and Infowars host, in a mass march toward the Capitol. About a week later, the FBI finally called him, he said.

The agents asked if he had been with any Proud Boys as the Capitol was stormed. And when he informed them that he had not, they moved on to other subjects.

Walter said he had recently been subpoenaed by defense lawyers in the Proud Boys sedition trial to appear as a witness.

Robert Reilly, a former FBI agent who handled domestic terrorism informants, said that First Amendment concerns about free speech and free assembly precluded the bureau from targeting groups such as the Proud Boys without evidence of a crime. While the FBI has targeted white supremacis­t groups that have displayed a penchant for violence, the Proud Boys have never been among them.

Reilly noted that agents could have tapped those Proud Boys who already had a relationsh­ip with the FBI — among them, Tarrio. Reilly said that if he had been handling Tarrio, “I would have asked him, given his position of influence in the group, if anybody was planning violent acts.”

There may have been a disconnect among the agents handling informants, Reilly said.

But lawyers for the Proud Boys say there was no disconnect. When informants in the Proud Boys were pressed for informatio­n after the attack, they said they had no knowledge of any premeditat­ed plans.

In her interview with congressio­nal investigat­ors, Moore, the FBI intelligen­ce official, could not fully explain why the bureau did not identify Congress as the target Jan. 6 even as the Capitol Police managed to, despite being unprepared to secure the building. Both were examining what was essentiall­y the same intelligen­ce.

“I didn’t have a crystal ball,” she said.

 ?? JASON ANDREW / NEW YORK TIMES FILE (2021) ?? Supporters of then-president Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Days before the end of the 2020 election, a team of FBI analysts tried to game out the worst outcomes of a disputed election. One they never thought of came to pass: a violent mob mobilizing in support of Donald Trump.
JASON ANDREW / NEW YORK TIMES FILE (2021) Supporters of then-president Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Days before the end of the 2020 election, a team of FBI analysts tried to game out the worst outcomes of a disputed election. One they never thought of came to pass: a violent mob mobilizing in support of Donald Trump.
 ?? MARIAM ZUHAIB / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE (2022) ?? FBI director Christophe­r Wray testifies Nov. 17 on Capitol Hill in Washington during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on threats to the homeland.
MARIAM ZUHAIB / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE (2022) FBI director Christophe­r Wray testifies Nov. 17 on Capitol Hill in Washington during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on threats to the homeland.

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